My friend B.J. commented on the last post that he thinks a paceline is just an accident waiting to happen. Over the past five years, since I started what I call “serious biking,” I’ve ridden in lots of them. Other times, I’ve simply glommed onto someone’s wheel for a pull. But I’ve got something in common with B.J.–after all these years of riding, I’m still not comfortable while drafting.
Most of the time, I find myself in a sort of paceline on our Sunday morning club rides. That’s because of the sheer number of riders out there. We’ll get anywhere from 15-30, and when we leave in a group, it’s quite a peloton. It’s not the classic double paceline, where the leaders pull off in different directions and then fall back to the rear. We’re a lot more disorganized than that.
The great thing about riding in a group like that is the drafting effect. You find yourself moving along at a good clip, but with very little effort. The peloton pulls you along.
However, I find this kind of riding to be both exhilarating and tiring at the same time. I’m grateful for the added speed, but I expend so much mental effort in the process that I’m worn out afterward.
I’m still not fast enough to hang with the paceline that occasionally forms on our “A” rides. I clearly remember one Sunday, when the “Bs” left early for some reason, but on our way back, met the “As” going in the opposite direction. They had one of the best-defined pacelines I’ve ever seen. They gobbled up the pavement. It was very impressive.
When I find myself drafting someone, or a group, my antennae go up immediately. I gauge my distance to the wheel in front, and work at maintaining a distance of no closer than a foot. I’m frankly more comfortable with about a three-foot gap to the guy in front of me. Then, I look past him to the rider ahead of him. If there are any complications, I figure that’s where they’ll happen. I suppose the thing that bugs me most about riding close is that I can’t see obstacles in the road ahead, and so am dependent upon other riders to point them out. Still, if I’m right on someone’s tail, I might have to react in an instant.
“Don’t draft unless you know the person you’re drafting, and are familiar with his riding style,” goes the advice about riding in pacelines. Good advice, I suppose. Problem is, I’m not familiar with anybody’s riding style — even club members I’ve been riding with for years. That’s because I might ride behind that person only once in a while. But how are you going to get better at it unless you practice? So that means you’re going to ride behind people you’re not familiar with — and hope for the best.
One of the cooler things to happen this past year was when the club headed south on its Sunday ride. We were on Old San Antonio Road — a two-lane blacktop with no shoulder. It’s a good cycling road that leads into the small town of Buda, and is very popular with all sorts of club rides. As usual, the A riders outdistanced me and the two other B riders who came along that day. We were on our own, until another club ride caught up to us. They were a little slower than our club A’s, but the momentum of their group pulled them past us. I hung on to the last rider in their group, who turned out to be their ride leader. He started offering impromptu coaching to me and one of the other B’s.
“Pull ahead of me, and get behind that guy,” he said, pointing to a rider several positions forward. I did, and that put me in the left row of the paceline. The leader hung back with my friend, who was having lots of trouble adjusting to the group. He patiently talked my friend into speeding up, finding a comfortable distance, and maintaining speed.
Meanwhile, I concentrated on keeping even with the rider next to me, while looking ahead for trouble. We flew into Buda, and at the corner Walgreens that marks the end of Old SA Road, they peeled off in a different direction than we were heading. I felt good — felt like I had really accomplished sticking with the paceline for a change.
But that, in my experience, is the exception. Most pacelines aren’t that organized, and the ones that are are too fast for me. I guess I’ll continue to look for opportunities to draft, but I know that most of the time, I’ll be feeling uneasy while I’m doing it.